February 2015 | Despite Guilty Pleas, Investigations Continue at Penn National
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Despite Guilty Pleas, Investigations Continue at Penn National

February 2015 - Suzanne Bush

Rapid ReduxRapid Redux, who won a special Eclipse award for tying Citation’s record of 19 wins in a single year and winning more than 19 consecutive races,  was one of the horses trained by David Wells. Photo by Rick Capone

It wasn’t exactly déjà vu all over again. But recent events at Penn National Race Course at Hollywood Casino did not demonstrate a lot of positive momentum from the troubles that have dogged the race track for the past several years. The drama was certainly not the intention of anyone in management at Penn National; and most of the trainers, jockeys, horse owners and track employees are not thrilled with the headlines. But there they are, nonetheless. And they come at a time when Pennsylvania’s horse-racing industry is facing new competition and new regulatory attention.

Recent history proved to be a dispiriting prologue. A 2011 Dauphin County Grand Jury reviewed evidence gathered during an investigation by the Pennsylvania Racing Commission.  Reportedly, trainers were injecting horses with mixtures of Red Bull and steroids—clear violations of rules governing racing. One trainer was also injecting horses with snake venom and using concoctions called “milk shakes” in efforts to improve horses’ performance during races. In addition, the Grand Jury heard testimony that another trainer permitted the grooms and exercise riders who worked for her to administer shocks to horses to get them to run faster. That trainer, the Grand Jury found, had been “romantically involved” with another trainer at Penn National, David Wells.

The drama didn’t end with that 2011 Grand Jury report. And neither did the duplicity. In December, 2014 Wells himself pleaded guilty to drugging horses at Penn National. He and three others—two trainers and a clocker—were arrested after an investigation by Pennsylvania State Police, the Racing Commission and the FBI. Wells was the trainer for 2011 Eclipse Award Winner Rapid Redux.

The Investigation Continues
Wells, along with trainers Patricia Anne Rogers and Samuel Webb and the track clocker Daniel Robertson are the most recent pedestrians on what is becoming a very crowded walk of shame in Grantville. In exchange for his guilty plea, federal charges against Wells were dismissed, although he still faces possible jail time. His sentencing was scheduled for late January. Charges against Webb have been dismissed, and in early January Rogers was still involved in plea bargaining. Her trial is set to commence in March. The clocker was fined $1,250 and placed on probation.

The story is not over, however, and further indictments may be in the offing. According to the FBI the investigation continues, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Harrisburg has thus refused to comment on what sparked the investigation in the first place.

Eric Johnston, the Director of Racing Operations at Penn National confirmed that the investigation is ongoing, but says he has no knowledge of its focus. He said that some changes had been made at the race track, though.  “I do know there have been some changes to the procedures for the clocker. Everything he does is monitored. There are actually two people who work on the clocking system, and now there’s a third person involved. They’d have to do a whole lot of scheming to do that again,” he says.

Johnston has been at Penn National in Grantville since April, when he was transferred from Penn National’s Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, TX. He understands how damaging these criminal activities are to the organization’s reputation and profitability. “Any time you have something like that come out, it’s going to have a negative effect on the product,” he explains. “We’re more regulated and tested now and I would probably be willing to guess there is more stuff going on in other sports. We don’t believe in brushing them (violations) under the rug by any means. We’re as transparent as we can be.”  He says that there is zero tolerance for the kinds of activities that have garnered headlines recently.

“We’re serious. We’re not here just to go with the flow. We’re here to improve racing. If you’re not on board with that, then you’re out.  Have a nice life.” He says that the management at Penn National is doing everything they can to make it difficult for cheaters.

Enforcement Muscle Runs Low on Cash
Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry was foundering before the legislature passed the Gaming Act of 2004, which set the stage for the casino industry. By law, 12 per cent of slots revenue goes to the horse racing industry, and the slots revenue triggered larger purses, breeders’ incentives and a future that looked as brilliant and unbridled as…well…Unbridled.

But the heady brew of horse manure, saddle soap and Vetrolin, stirred with a generous dose of greed, is apparently too much for some people to resist. Cheating scandals have persisted, and recommendations from the 2011 Grand Jury inquiry have yet to be adopted. For one thing, the Grand Jury recommended off-track drug testing of horses, as a further disincentive to trainers who considered using banned substances on horses before shipping them to the racetrack. That would require significantly more resources for regulators.

In 2014 the legislature had to supply emergency funding to keep the two racing commissions within the Department of Agriculture afloat. The state’s regulators had their hands full. The cost of testing horses for drugs and banned substances alone was becoming far more costly than anticipated. And there were expensive redundancies within the regulatory apparatus.

Senator Elder Vogel (R., Beaver, Butler, Lawrence Counties) proposed eliminating the two racing commissions in the Department of Agriculture and consolidate regulatory activities in the State Gaming Control Board. Vogel is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and his plan has been approved by the Senate.